April 7, 2013

High tech not always that welcome in the high country

By Josh Christie

On your way up to the mountain, an email to your smartphone gives you the daily mountain report, and tweets from your friends tell you who's planning on being on the hill. After you unload your gear and get equipped, a liftie uses a handheld scanner to log your ticket or season's pass. On the lift, you catch up on some work email (how else could you ski on a weekday?) as your favorite song plays directly into your ears. You unload at the top, and a heads-up display in your goggles tells you trail names, difficulties and conditions as you turn your head. As you rip down a trail, a ticker in your peripheral vision lets you know your speed, vertical feet and even your height off a jump. You get to the bottom of the hill and -- DING! -- earn a virtual badge for logging a run before 9 a.m.

It may sound slightly futuristic (the HUD in particular has shades of Iron Man), but technology like this is already available to skiers and snowboarders. We're living in an age of technology and information overload, and even the slopes aren't safe. It's becoming easier and easier to keep tabs on ourselves and each other while we're on a trail or chairlift. It's a reality that's both exciting and terrifying.

Listening to music on the hill has been a habit of skiers since the days of the Walkman, and the ubiquity of small mp3 players has only increased its popularity.

A quick poll of skiers and snowboarders I know revealed a clear generational split on feelings toward music on the hill with older skiers having never ridden with tunes and younger riders doing it regularly.

There's plenty of debate to be had about the relative safety of skiing with music and I'll leave that to the experts. My personal take? Ski with music if you want, but keep the volume low, pay attention and turn it off when you're on the lift.

A number of helmets, like the K2 Rival Pro and Baker Wescott Audio -- named after our local hero Seth -- have speakers built into their ear covers. Some of the newest helmets are even built with Bluetooth technology so sound can be wirelessly streamed from an iPod or iPhone to the speakers. Spyder, North Face and Burton have also designed jackets with remotes built into their sleeves so riders can adjust volume or skip songs with a few simple button presses.

Beyond the realm of music, most of the technology being integrated into ski gear is going into goggles. Boulder, Colo.-based Zeal Optics has been on the cutting age of this trend for years, first with the release of GPS-enabled goggles in 2010 and then with high-definition camera goggles in 2012. The current iteration of its GPS goggles, the Z3 GPS Mod Live, tracks speed, altitude, jump stats, temperature, distance and run count, all from a HUD below the lens. It also integrates with your phone via Bluetooth, enabling caller ID and text messages. The Z3 also allows for slightly Orwellian "Buddy Tracking," which will tell you exactly where any of your friends with the app are on the hill. The ZEAL HD Camera Goggle shoots 1080p video and 8 megapixel photos, controlled with a remote on their side.

The big new entrant into the world of this goggle tech is behemoth Oakley, which released its $599 Airwave goggles earlier this season. Its take on the GPS goggle has many of the same features as the Z3, along with the added cachet of the Oakley name. Oakley also took the added step of releasing a software development kit that allows outsiders to build new applications like stopwatches and heart-rate monitors.

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